Archive for the ‘Music – Contemporary’ Category

PostHeaderIcon SFO Salutes Ten “American Mavericks”

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas has always had a special affinity for the music of American composers. The Los Angeles-born  music director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, he has championed those pioneers  who, according to an SFO website, “created a new American musical voice for the 20th Century.” In 2000, Thomas organized the first “American Mavericks” festival devoted to such seminal figures as Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, John Cage and Charles Ives. This month, he is touring the next iteration of “American Mavericks” in Chicago, Ann Arbor and New York City.

Charles Ives

Charles Ives

I was in the Orchestra Hall audience ten days ago for several reasons. Foremost was to hear the orchestra in its first Chicago appearance in 10 years. I heard them once before under the leadership of Herbert Blomstedt but wanted to hear their playing  under Thomas’ direction. They performed brilliantly, playing with total commitment and keen attack, signs of an improved ensemble relishing the chance to play such challenging fare. Another reason was to hear the works on the program (Cowell, John Adams & Ives). Apart from Adams, the other mavericks are rarely heard inside Symphony Center. Finally, I wanted to see if my musical ears had grown more accustomed to Ives’ spiky, contrapuntal tonal palette. Thomas is widely viewed as the premier interpreter of Ives.

The program opened with a haunting, soaring trumpet solo from Cowell’s “Synchrony.” I hadn’t expected such a lovely melody at the start and found the rhythmic and melodic tonal clusters that followed pleasantly accessible. Cowell also taught and reportedly influenced the work of other mavericks, particularly Cage and Lou Harrison.

John Adams

John Adams

Adams’ newest work, “Absolute Jest” followed. It is the fourth commission he has composed for San Francisco beginning with “Harmonium” in 1981. It is hard to believe that Adams was ever a musical maverick. However, he is credited with steering music away from the dry 12-tone exercises of academic modernism and back to a more expressive and humanistic realm. His 1986 opera, “Nixon in China” broke new ground and, ever since his 2002 tribute to the victims of 9/11, “On the Transmigration of Souls”, Adams has become the default composer for orchestra programmers, a contemporary composer audiences will tolerate.

As I listened to the buoyant, yet fractured rhythms, the work had a pastiche quality that, while enjoyable in performance, did not leave a lasting impression. Afterward, reading the program notes, Adams called the piece’s short bursts “quotations”.  While my ear caught, what I thought were snippets of Copland, I later learned that he was borrowing freely from Beethoven’s late quartets and even the Ninth Symphony.  The inclusion of the St. Lawrence String Quartet was an interesting touch. As stand-ins for Beethoven’s quartets, they played with fierce engagement, often in attacking juxtaposition to the orchestra. It was a novel but not entirely successful experiment.

I still don’t “get” Ives but I realize that he has changed modern music’s vocabulary and earned his “American Maverick” stripes. However, Henry Brant’s rich orchestration of Ives’ “A Concord Symphony” (originally a sonata solely for piano) softened many of the piece’s rough edges and made Ives’ ideas more pronounced and palatable, particularly the sweetly melodic third movement, The Alcotts.  His tribute to three other transcendental New England writers–Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau–remain a musical puzzle to my ears.

Tilson Thomas has lived with the music of these composers for many years. I left Symphony Center convinced that no other orchestra could interpret these works as convincingly and idiomatically. That opinion was evidently shared by many younger members of the audience who whooped and applauded heartily for each work on the program. The audience skewed much younger than the usual CSO audience. At least 1/3 of the crowd in the lower balcony were high school and college students. While the CSO offered heavily discounted pricing for students on their website and on Groupon, many also came because of Thomas and the orchestra’s reputation for contemporary fare. For a list of concerts in April and May with special $10 seats for students, go to

Though it was satisfying to hear the SFO at all, I wonder why Chicago audiences were treated to only one program from the festival while Ann Arbor presented three full programs  immediately after Chicago and New York’s Carnegie Hall is presenting all four festival programs. Tilson Thomas is a definite draw when he plays with our orchestra and a broad audience exists in Chicago for more adventuresome repertoire beyond the iconic three B’s. Was it not worth the risk of a less than full house to showcase rarely-performed works by such game-changing composers?  We missed out on hearing soprano Jesse Norman and Meredith Monk perform John Cage’s “Songbooks”, early Aaron Copland and Mason Bates’ recent commission for the SFO, “Mass Transmission.” Is Chicago still too provincial in its musical tastes? I’d like to think not.

Tilson Thomas was asked when he began his tenure in San Francisco 15 years ago what he hoped people would think about the orchestra in years to come. His response: “America’s most fearless, most dangerous and most generous orchestra.” As it celebrates its 100th Anniversary, I’d say the SFO has fulfilled that mission splendidly!

PostHeaderIcon Whole Lotta “Soundings” Going On

Don’t know about you but, if I hadn’t received a brochure in the mail last month, I wouldn’t know about an extraordinary musical event starting this week in Evanston. It’s the 9th annual Spring Festival sponsored by Northwestern University and its Bienen School of Music. I’ve seen no ads in the Tribune or The Reader. No E-mail blasts either. Yesterday, I finally heard a commercial on WFMT for a concert by one of the featured artists.

So, for all music lovers who live on Chicago’s north side, the suburbs or even southside outposts, like Hyde Park, let me say it LOUD and clear: GET THEE NORTH. Over the next two weekends, something better than NCAA March Madness   is taking place in our town.

I’m referring to “Soundings”, a themed series of seven concerts featuring top-notch classical and renowned world music soloists. The series’ 11 headliners will offer unusually imaginative concerts featuring not just the standard European classical repertoire but works drawn from Indian, South American, Celtic, Zydeco and Jazz traditions.

Richard Van Kleeck, Director of Concert Activities at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, has programmed the Spring Festival since its founding in 2004.  His modus operandi is to forgo simply filling open dates with a motley crew of musical artists and arrange the concerts around a central musical theme.

For the inaugural festival eight years ago, Van Kleeck’s theme was the piano. Leon Fleisher and Menahem Pressler were among the participants. For the closing concert, 33 pianists gathered on stage and played 10 Steinway Grands. Another year was devoted to string quartets, titled “Quadromania” and featured The Juilliard Quartet and Turtle Island Quartet. This Spring Festival theme this year, which opens on March 28th and runs through April 7th, is “Soundings: Celebrating Singular Voices in Music.”

Anoushka Shankar

Anoushka Shankar

The opening artist is two-time Grammy nominee, Anouska Shankar, daughter of famed sitarist, Ravi Shankar, who will play hybrid works that incorporate elements of flamenco, tango and fandango with ancient Indian musical forms. She will be followed by acclaimed pianist, Gabriela Montero, who will play “visionary interpretations” of Chopin and Liszt and devote the second half to improvisations on themes suggested by the audience.

Three noted clarinetists, all members of the Bienen School, will perform a program titled “Clarinetissimo” followed on Saturday, March 31, by famed guitarist, Sharon Isbin, joined by Brazilian percussionist, Thiago de Mello. The festival’s second week begins with violinist Jennifer Koh. For her program, “Bach and Beyond, Part I”  Ms. Koh will guide audiences on a historical journey of solo violin masterpieces based on works by Bach.

Sharon Isbin

Sharon Isbin

On Friday, April 6th, the weekend kicks off with what promises to be a sonic showdown featuring master accordionists and bandoneon virtuosos from France, Russia, Chicago and New Orleans titled “The Big Squeeze.”  The festival will conclude on April 7th as acclaimed Cuban trumpet star and four-time Grammy winner, Arturo Sandoval, performs with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra.  All these “soundings” should rank as among  2012’s musical highpoints.

Arturo Sandaval

Arturo Sandoval

Van Kleeck deserves an award for such inspired programming. Why are themed programs so rare in the Chicago area? His example deserves to be copied by his peers at  Harris Theater, Symphony Center, Grant Park and possibly Ravinia. Instead, we are fed an repetitious diet of  one-off star turns, however noteworthy. Why not feature four or five outstanding violinists or other instrumentalists over 3 or 4 concerts around a common theme (like Koh’s “Bach and Beyond” idea) at any one or combination of the above venues?  With the right marketing, it could be a crowd-pleaser that draws music regulars and new audiences locally and from out-of-town, like opera’s Ring cycle or the CSO’s Beethoven Festival in 2010. Why is such a concept being championed by a university rather than our downtown music presenters ? Classical and world music programming could stand a good jolt out of its well-worn rut.

An added feature making the festival such an attractive entertainment option is the reasonable pricing for such stellar talent. Tickets range from $14 to 26 (for Shankar and Isbin) with student seats at $10. There’s no better place or better bargain for musical enjoyment over the next 10 days than at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. To see the complete lineup and order tickets, go to To buy tickets with a credit card, call 847/467-4000.

PostHeaderIcon These Hills Are Alive

Vence, France

Vence, France

I landed in this lovely hillside town of Vence, France on the famed Cote d’Azur uncertain on what I’d find in terms of musical offerings. I’ve happily discovered that these lovely hillside towns are alive with the sound of music.  It ranges from pop to classical to jazz and local genres, such as chanson, French accordion and religious chant.

Every week, Vence’s billboards, cafes and tourist office are covered with ever-changing posters and flyers promoting upcoming concerts, These events can be local fare–such as Vence’s month-long pop festival, Les Nuits de Sud” (Southern Nights)–or in neighboring villages between 5 and 25 miles away.

Music is very much a vital part of French cultural life. July featured two internationally-recognized jazz festivals, one at nearby Juan-les-Pins (over 50 years old) and at neighboring Nice. I attended closing night of the Nice Festival and enormously enjoyed a concert that lasted over four hours and featured brilliant trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s Quintet, the ageless Ahmad Jamal and Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in fine form.

I had wanted to catch one of the performances at the 4-day Festival of French Accordion but failed to make it. This coming weekend, however, I am looking forward to a concert by an a cappella group from Corsica singing Gregorian and other chant music at a Trappist abbey on an island off the coast of Cannes.

I’ve discovered that, for the French, music is a necessary ingredient for having a good time and stoking one’s joie de vivre. Since my arrival in June, there have been three occasions in Vence that brought out the local population (all ages, not just teenagers) for socializing and dancing.

Fete De Musique

Fete De Musique

On June 21, France celebrated Fete de Musique,” a national celebration now 30 years old where every village decorates its town square and bands of every description (provincial French, rock, blues) entertain all evening while folks mingled, sat at sidewalk cafes and danced. Pauline and I had a great time reveling in the party atmosphere.

Then, of course, on July 14th, all France celebrated Bastille Day, the French Independence Day. And, just last weekend, this town’s medieval square (dating from the 14th Century), erupted with revelers dining and dancing for the centennial feast of St. Elizabeth.  I’m not sure why that produced such revelry but why let a good saint’s feast day go to waste.

Besides a full calendar of summer concerts and feast days, I’ve also enjoyed getting my music fix via French radio.  While I’m at a loss when it comes to fast-talking hosts on television or seeing “House” or “Gray’s Anatomy” dubbed in French, music serves as the universal language.

I roam the dial and land on either of two classical or jazz stations. While neither classical station approaches WFMT’s excellence, they are quite good AND commercial-free. As for jazz, having two 24-hour stations puts Chicago to shame though WDCB and WHPK do their best to fill the crater-size void.

One of the classical stations programs mainly opera and song, befitting France’s vast “chanson” repertoire. I usually favor the other station which plays more instrumental and orchestral performances. My only quibble is that, unlike America, where announcers announce performers, selection and recording date before and after each selection religiously, the stations here play back-to-back cuts that can last nearly an hour without any artist identification.

And both jazz stations exhibit a very French take on American jazz. You never hear modern groups.  No jarring free jazz or hard-bop selections. I have yet to hear Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk or other modern masters. Rather, the selections favor Ella, Ellington and a lot of Louie (Armstrong)! And a pre-1950s songlist. Not exactly American “Smooth Jazz” but a close cousin.

Let me close with two sidenotes. None of the summer concerts, usually out-of-doors, start before 9 or 9:30 p.m. You may wonder why. Well, I learned that’s because the noisy cicadas don’t stop their infernal chirping until that time.

Finally, at “Fete de Musique”, the closing ensemble was a blues band who had the audience rocking. As their final number at close to midnight, they played a polished version of the blues anthem, “Sweet Home Chicago”. Amen, I say!